The Civic Auditorium in Stockton, Calif., where fight scenes were being filmed for the forthcoming movie Fat City, was one atmospheric arena. The on-camera seats were filled with about six ethnic strains of scroungy-to-genteel Stockton extras, and the air was heavy with fumes: fake smoke, from a machine that blows mineral oil over dry ice, and real smoke, from the Don Diego Dunhill Selección Supremas Director John Huston handed out to front-row spectators when he felt the air was getting too clear around them.
Vapors aside, the auditorium carried a good funky history. At one time or another both Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis made tank-town appearances there and, according to local promoter Jack Cruz (who plays a pitiless local promoter in the film), Max Baer once pounded his head against the steam pipes downstairs to get ready for a bout with someone named Chief Cariboo.
Possibly the air was further charged by virtue of the fact that so many people, real and fictional, were breathing it through broken noses. That included the film's two central characters, hard-scrabble Stockton club fighters Billy Tully and Ernie Munger, played by actors Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges.
Ernie Munger got his nose—with the aid of some pretend blood applied by a makeup man—in his first fight on camera. Then Billy's and Ernie's handlers, themselves former fighters, exchanged the following dialogue:
February 14, 1972
Babe: How's your nose? Can you breathe?
Ruben: Yeah, can't you?
Babe: Not on a wet day.
Babe, the punchy trainer, was played by retired Art Aragon, the Golden Boy, whose nose isn't so good in real life. The same goes for Leonard Gardner, who grew up in Stockton and who wrote the novel Fat City and the screenplay for the movie. Gardner gave up organized boxing some 15 years ago after his nose was broken two times in seven amateur bouts (of which he says he won "about three"). Like Ernie in the novel, Gardner in his fighting days tried to toughen the lining of his nose by sniffing brine up into it.
Director Huston's nose was broken for the first time "when I was chasing an ice wagon and the wagon stopped," and again during his late teens in Los Angeles, when at six feet and 138 pounds, he fought under various names, sometimes twice in one night, for $5 or $10. Huston says he was not, however, amateur lightweight champion of California, as has often been reported.
Keach, the most prominent actor in the mostly amateur cast of Fat City, has never broken his nose (and he appeared for one scene with his trunks on backward—EVERLAST in the rear), but while he was posing for still pictures his looks were inspected approvingly by Aragon and former light heavyweight contender Sixto Rodriguez, who also appears in the film. "He's got the profile of a fighter," said Rodriguez.
"Pushed-in nose," agreed Aragon. "He looks good."
As for Rodriguez, his nose is folded over to one side, like a Picasso's. When makeup man Jack Young saw it, he said, "Your nose is perfect! I don't want to touch it!" Young should know, being not only a blood-and-scar technician of some note (who wouldn't reveal the base for his blood solution except to say that "it's edible on pancakes—in fact, I think I'll order pancakes tomorrow in the coffee shop, pour some of this blood on them and see what people say"), but also a former Golden Gloves champion with no bone left in his nose.
"Fighters' noses all used to be flat," observed Assistant Director Al Silvani, formerly Frank Sinatra's bodyguard, and an established fight trainer and fight-movie consultant. "All the bone would be taken out so it wouldn't splinter and cause bleeding."
Fat City, which will be released in May by Columbia Pictures and Rastar Productions, is about more than boxing. Its characters represent an entire stratum of people—winos, gas-station attendants, onion-toppers, a "taciturn black upholsterer" played by former welterweight champion Curtis Cokes—who have had more taken out of them than nasal bone and who are never going to make it to the sweet life symbolized in the title. Most of the film's action occurs on the small-time fight scene—boxing being what Tully and Munger hope will carry them to Fat City. And on-cam-era stuff aside, the movie's bringing together of so many real and simulated fighters gave rise to a wealth of fight talk, and even a few fleeting fights. It was a wonder no noses were broken.
Huston had some good fight stories to tell, and he almost got caught with an unscheduled punch. "When I was a boy in Los Angeles," he said, "my heroes were boxers: Jackie Fields, Fidel [pronounced Fiddle] La Barba, Baby Joe Gans, Dynamite Young George, Joe Schlocker, Georgie Levine, Ace Hudkins, Sergeant Sammy Baker....My father took me to see the Dempsey-Firpo fight, which was the greatest thing that could happen to a kid. And after I had been fighting some myself, I went to New York to see my father in a play. This was in the late '20s, and hoods [pronounced by Huston to rhyme with "foods"] were trying to move into the theater world. I went into my father's dressing room and he said, 'John, there's a man outside who's giving me a little trouble. I think he's one of those hoods.' I was full of myself then, so I jumped up and went outside, ready to do something. And there stood Jack Dempsey."
Needless to say, Huston did not mix it up with Walter Huston's friend, the Manassa Mauler, but in Stockton the director of The Maltese Falcon and The Red Badge of Courage and a star in Candy and Myra Breckinridge was almost decked by a nonentity. Stockton is currently undergoing urban renewal and chamber-of-commerce promotion, but patches survive of what used to be—at least according to the boasts of some of the more raffish Stocktonites—the biggest skid row west of Chicago. Washington Square in the center of town is still bestrewn with about as many semiagricultural drifters, dozing or drinking wine, as were found murdered and buried last May in Yuba City, 80 miles away. Huston and Keach were standing in a skid-row doorway going over a scene when one such individual materialized and snatched away the satchel held by Keach. When the bag had been retrieved and the scene shot, Huston ran after the man to offer him a couple of dollars. When tapped on the shoulder, however, the drifter whirled and just missed Huston with a roundhouse right.
Billy Walker also was involved in some tense moments. Walker, a tall, unmarked, high-Afroed welterweight, is a 30-year-old Stockton resident who is desperate to build a professional ring career after seven years in Soledad Prison, where he was both welterweight and middleweight champion. Walker's prospects have improved somewhat since the summer—he has had a couple of successful fights in Arizona—and Huston has been trying to make a match for him in Los Angeles. But when he was picked to play a minor boxing role in the film he was suffering from a reputation as a dangerous fighter (some said a dirty one) as well as a cutie who was likely to beat most anybody's boy but didn't have enough of a name, thanks to the seven years out of circulation, to make beating him worthwhile. He was getting less than one fight a month, never for more than $400, so he wasn't making much of a living. Then the movie came along and, ironically, Walker's role was to fake a fight with a local kid who had never boxed before and to make it look close. "I finally get into the ring and then I can't hit the guy," he said. "It's frustrating. Well, I hit him once. I didn't turn it over. I just slapped him. Almost tore his head off."
While the film company was in town, Walker had brushes with two fighters. One evening a series of popping noises resounded around the pool of the Holiday Inn. It was Walker and 24-year-old Ruben Navarro, once the top-ranked junior lightweight contender and hero of the Los Angeles Mexican-American population, who makes a couple of brief appearances in the film. The two got to sparring a little and generating some heat. It ended when Navarro cracked Walker's bridgework with his open hand. Then there was the taping session matching Walker and fifth-ranked welterweight Hedgemon Lewis. There had been talk of a movie-colony match between Walker and Lewis, which would have been a great break for Walker. But this session was solely for the purpose of recording some convincing thunks, to be dubbed into the soundtrack at appropriate moments. Lewis was almost stolid; Walker put more into it. He came on in his sidling-bristling style, his torso switching like a cat's tail, his eyes and mouth grimacing electrically. The two were concentrating hard on throwing undamaging punches to each other's gloves and arms. "Cut the voice," the sound man said when Walker started groaning—apparently with the effort of restraint. Still, the thunks didn't sound right. They tried Lewis hitting bare-handed into Walker's gloves, but that didn't work either. Finally they got the right sound from Lewis, gloved, hitting Al Silvani's bare hands. Walker got back into his robe, still twitching and jumping.
One of those watching was Bob Dixon, 50, a wizened ex-lightweight from Los Angeles, whose face has the texture of a much-abused boxing glove and whose voice is full of shattered glass. Rastar Productions found Dixon in a Stockton unemployment office and hired him to play a lettuce weeder who tells Tully, when the latter also is reduced to lettuce weeding, how wine and roses cost him a wife. Dixon hasn't fought in a ring since 1949, the year he got his first shot at a big purse. As he tells it, he was offered $3,000 to box in Canada under an assumed name. For such an opportunity he took the cast off a broken right arm, figuring he could get by without using his right hand. He won the decision, but had to throw a couple of rights in the process, and after the fight his arm was swollen monstrously. He couldn't go to a doctor because he was afraid the boxing commission would get wind of his using the phony name. So he got a friend to put a cast on over the swelling. When the plaster came off, the arm was frozen at the elbow in the position it remains in today, bent as if for jogging. Dixon wasn't much of a fighter after that.
"I get a government pension, from shrapnel in the war, so it really doesn't matter," he said. "But I'da probably been way up there. Ike Williams, he liked me. Because I was little and cocky. A little old lick didn't hurt too much, but you had to hit and not get hit, then counter good and drop the stud. But I started to drink a little bit. Got asthma. I'll go to the gym and fool around now. But I ain't got any gas."
Dixon didn't have to fight anybody while Fat City was being made. Neither, by any means, did white-haired Sammy Stein, but he remembered rowdier days. Stein plays the movie ring announcer, a role he often fills in real life around San Francisco. Between takes he reminisced: "I started thinking about being an announcer when I was 17. I bought one of these small intercoms, cost $1.50. I put one end in the next room and talked into the other, and I said, 'The University of California.' It sounded pretty good. The U...ni...ver...si...teee of Cal...if...or...nia. Very good."
And Al Silvani—when he wasn't coaching a fight scene or conferring with Huston about how authentic the punches were looking—told about how he came within an inch of punching out a sensei on the set of The Manchurian Candidate to prove a point about boxing. Silvani never fought professionally but he has taught Paul Newman, the Thai army, Elvis Presley (for Kid Galahad) and Barbra Streisand how to box. (The Streisand lessons were just to pass the time during the filming of Funny Girl.) So Silvani knows what he is talking about when he says, "There is a definite art to taking a punch with your eyes open and looking to see what you're going to do next. Because it's a shock (he slaps himself unexpectedly in the face with a huge hand, causing three people nearby to start) to get hit in the face, and your first reaction is to flinch. That's why a boxer can always take a karate or a judo man. When we were making The Manchurian Candidate, this guy said his karate instructor could take seven guys throwing punches. I said I didn't know about seven guys, but I could take him. So a few days later this professor shows up. So I say, 'You won't hurt me, and I won't hurt you, but we'll just see how it would go.' So we got out there and I gave it this"—he feinted—"and he tensed up, and I had an opening."
Fat City was a remarkably realistic film, Silvani said, because "this is the first fight film where nobody takes a dive, nobody's got a gun to anybody's head. All the fights I was involved in, nobody had a gun to anybody's head. And the only time somebody will throw a fight is like this: during the war I had Tami Mauriello. Joe Louis was in the Army so Mauriello was very big. So the promoter in some tank town would call up and say, 'We want Mauriello and you can pick your opponent.' Well, Mauriello had been messing around, not training—he was out of shape. So what am I going to do—take somebody along who's going to knock his head off? So you find somebody and say, 'Tami is out of shape, he can go about two or three rounds, then you lay down.' Or you've got a good kid you're bringing along, and you want him to learn his moves, you don't want him to get beat. But that's just in tank towns."
Probably the snappiest fighter-talker on hand was Aragon, who handed out his bail-bond business cards reading, "I'll get you out if it takes 10 years," and who told about such fighters as the one who "was a great boxer, but he had bad hands. The referee kept stepping on them." Aragon went on: "When I retired, Jim Healy, the radio announcer in L.A., said, 'Art Aragon cleaned up boxing in California today. He quit.' " For a while Aragon read Guys and Dolls on the set and then he started carrying around a volume entitled California Appellate Reports 2nd Series, 154, 1957. Appendix—California Supplement, which contained the appellate court's opinion on People vs. Aragon. This was the case in which it was charged that when Aragon was third-ranked welterweight "he did, in substance, about Dec. 7, 1956, unlawfully offer to give a sum of money to Dick Goldstein with the intention and understanding that Goldstein would not use his best efforts to win a certain boxing contest, in which contest each of them was to participate, and with the further understanding that Goldstein would so conduct himself as to assist and enable Aragon to win the boxing event." A lower court's guilty verdict was overturned by the appellate division on procedural grounds.
"When I was 19 or 20," said Aragon, "I was in a picture with Bob Hope and Mickey Rooney—Off Limits. I played myself, Art Aragon, champion of the Navy, and Rooney played the champion of the Army. Biggest mistake of my life. I was supposed to miss him by half an inch—I hit him on the chin. Held up the movie two weeks. Couple of hours he couldn't talk. That was the last movie fight scene I was in. Word gets around."
That was the problem on Sixto Rodriguez' mind when he was trying to make his fight scenes with Keach realistic. "I tell him, 'Go ahead and hit me to the body,' " Sixto said, "and he says, 'You do the same.' I tell him no. I want to do well in this picture. Maybe it will lead to something else."
Rodriguez' life has so far led, if not exactly to Fat City, at least out of boxing (he couldn't get Archie Moore or Willie Pastrano to give him a title shot) and into ownership of a Texaco station. He also lives an enviably warm family life with the former Jackie Dempsey and their two children; one, who is 2½, can chin himself, and the other, 7½, is planning to take his father's leftover scars to school for show-and-tell. (Makeup man Young uses a special plastic for his applied scars. He makes them up in advance and keeps them in a Lucite box marked "Scars.")
Sixto was probably the best-liked person on the set, and he had no interest in causing any movie people to suffer. But one night Author Gardner, Ruben Navarro and Bob Dixon had been out all afternoon drinking and carrying on, and when Gardner came back to the Holiday Inn he apparently thought he was one of his characters. Gardner is as spare (6 feet, 147 pounds) and as low-keyed as his prose style, but he is tenacious. "When I'm writing," he declared one night, "I'm like the guy who wants to do 100 pull-ups and can only do 10, but he's still hanging on to the bar."
Anyway, this was the same night Navarro cracked Walker's bridgework. Rodriguez was among those standing around the pool, watching. And Gardner started moving in on Sixto—who kept protesting, "No, I don't do that." Gardner kept advancing, throwing open hands. Finally Sixto responded with three quick open hands to the body. "Leonard didn't back up," reported Dixon later. "Leonard was pretty keen. He's fiery, to be 38 years old. But Leonard did stop."
"Man, what were you doing?" Navarro asked Gardner. "Even I wouldn't do that."
But straightening out an author was easier for Rodriguez than faking things with an actor. None of the fighters around were complaining about the movie work. "These guys spar all the time for nothing," pointed out Jeff Bridges (who describes himself as "pretty passive"), "and here they're getting paid $150 a day to take my punch—which is not much."
The fighters' pain was psychological. "It's hard for a pro to hold back a punch," explained Rodriguez. "And in this movie I'm supposed to have a bad stomach—and my stomach is good. I tell anybody, 'Go ahead, hit me there.' In the movie I'm supposed to pass blood—and I never passed blood. A couple of times, after fights, but it was just excitement—that, and getting hit in the kidney. But not from a bad stomach. I made Bobo Olson pass blood."
And here Sixto was, playing an over-the-hill Mexican fighter who comes up to fight Tully and loses because he is "weak downstairs." Keach was game and trim—he had trained with José Torres for four months in New York before moving out to Stockton. But in the ring he looked like the diametric opposite of Billy Walker—stiff above the hips. He also was hurting in the ribs and under the heart, his thumb felt sprained, and he couldn't help noting that when he accidentally hit Sixto a little too squarely, Sixto responded a little too instinctively.
Sixto showed a hitherto unrealized flair for falling down and showing pain— "pretty good for somebody who never got knocked out, huh?" he would say in a strained voice—but he had a hard time making it look as though he weren't intentionally opening himself up for Keach's punches.
The scuffling went on for three days, sometimes convincingly, sometimes not. "You go poom, poom and I'll go pow" the combatants would say to each other. Silvani made suggestions and Huston looked on from the background, giving everyone plenty of rope.
Finally, on the last afternoon that could be devoted to the Tully fight scene, Silvani took Keach and Rodriguez aside. "O.K.," he said. "This is the last time we're going through it. So if somebody gets hit a little bit...." Silvani shrugged.
"O.K., gringo," Sixto said to Keach with a big smile, and the two climbed in and started going at it in a spirited way. There were flashes of a combination of manifest gusto and concealed restraint that almost amounted to an art form in itself. What looked like Tully's mouthpiece went flying; it was Tully's cauliflower ear. The extras breathed mineral-oil vapor, smoked Huston's Supremas and cheered and cried for blood with semispontaneous feeling. By the time Huston said "Print it," the fighters had knocked off all of each other's artificial scars.